Victorian Nationals make progressive pitch in wake of Joyce’s return

Victorian Nationals make progressive pitch in wake of Joyce’s return

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has never been a popular figure south of the Murray River and it’s clear the feeling is mutual.

Recently, when asked by News Corp how Melbourne might feel if Australia abandoned its aim of having zero cases of COVID-19, he said regional Australians couldn't "give a shit" about the impact the virus had on Melbourne. Why? Because coal and beef exports are at record highs.

Barnaby Joyce has never really been popular south of the Murray River.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It's the sort of nonsensical city-whacking politics that Joyce is now famous for. It may work in northern NSW and Queensland electorates, but it risks alienating conservative voters further south.

At a state level, the opposition’s chances at the next election are deeply tied to the success of the National Party that will need to win back seats it once held such as Morwell, Mildura and Shepparton, since lost to independents.

The opposition is still spooked by the impact Canberra can have on state elections. Weeks before the last state poll federal MPs dumped Malcolm Turnbull which went some way to explaining the crushing result for the Coalition in 2018.

This also goes some way to explaining why Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh and his deputy Steph Ryan tried to divorce the Victorian National Party from its federal counterpart following Joyce’s return.

Victorian Nationals deputy leader Steph Ryan.Credit:Eddie Jim

Walsh and Ryan were flexing their muscles. It was a way of reminding the federal party that without Victoria, it would effectively be reduced to a party of NSW Nationals given it merged with the Liberals in Queensland and lacks federal representatives in the other states.

Walsh and Ryan also wanted to differentiate their brand from that of Joyce and were keen to highlight climate change policy as a particular bone of contention.

The disaffiliation motion was ultimately unsuccessful. Party insiders believe there is little chance of it being reignited, but Walsh and Ryan achieved their goal.

In reality, most Victorian National Party MPs, including Walsh and Ryan, believe Joyce’s return will do little to hinder their chances on election day. The National Party has long-championed the idea that it is more of a loose alliance of rural free-thinkers than a collective group of MPs bound by the same political messaging.

Internally, Walsh has long-argued that the National Party acts like a franchise business with its MPs the franchisees. Its members benefit from pooled resources and recognisable signage, but differentiate themselves on the ground by running on a range of local issues.

Bridget McKenzie’s backing of Barnaby Joyce was seen as an act of treachery by some Nationals.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It’s the reason why incumbent National Party MPs are often returned with strong margins, but the party struggles transitioning to new members leaving it open to attacks from independents.

“Our federal brand counts for less than what it does for major parties in cities who attach themselves to the leader,” one Victorian Nationals MP said. “The change of leader doesn’t suit us but it shouldn’t put seats at risk.”

But if Joyce doesn’t hurt the party’s local election chance, why instigate a divorce? In reality, this is personal not political.

Much of the recent anger from Victorian Nationals is directed at Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie and her decision to back Joyce in return for a cabinet position. Her treachery, as her colleagues describe it, gave her a seat back at the cabinet table at the expense of Gippsland MP Darren Chester who, for years, had her back.

“Nationally, when you get rid of Michael McCormack in favour of Barnaby Joyce, you probably lose as many votes as you gain,” one Victorian National Party MP said. "But bringing Joyce back in this way has fractured Victoria. It has done a lot of damage."

In 2017 McKenzie was plucked from relative obscurity to fill the party’s vacant deputy leadership and go straight into cabinet. Chester acted as her numbers man.

McKenzie’s actions have now isolated her from many of her Victorian colleagues and the state leadership team of Walsh and Ryan.

Victorian National Party insiders believe the animosity towards McKenzie is so fierce that it not only fuelled the initial divorce proceedings, but it has raised the prospect of reopening her preselection, leaving her vulnerable to an internal challenge.

But McKenzie appears to have made her move at the Joyce camp at just the right time. Having locked in the second spot on the Coalition’s election ticket she is likely to be returned to Parliament for a six-year stint following the next election, regardless of the anger from some of those in her home state.

Annika Smethurst is state political editor.

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